Opinion: Dictatorship or democracy?

Peter Stanford

I have just returned from a half-term jaunt to the Tuscan island of Elba, whose main claim to fame - besides its beaches and breathtaking natural beauty - is as Napoleon's consolation prize for defeat by the rest of Europe in 1814.

The pocket-sized emperor spent 10 months on the island before slipping back into France and trying his luck one more time, with defeat at Waterloo and exile in St Helena the consequence of this.

He did not, however, only pass his time on Elba plotting his reprise, but took seriously his role as prince and built roads, hospitals and schools, improving life for his 20,000 subjects. It set me dreaming - as you only get the chance to do when making endless sandcastles - what it would be like to be the benign dictator of a manageably small domain. You could, I realised, potentially bring about just the sort of change that many of us work towards on the broader, less tractable canvas of 21st-century Britain. This idea rather appealed. I should say 'I'm ashamed to say it appealed'. But I'm not sure if I am. It remains the cardinal sin in our world to suggest that democracy is not the best way of doing things. Its flaws are endlessly downplayed as we seek to topple dictators and restore power to those they oppress. But two trips I have made as the guest of overseas charities made me wonder.

One took me to Brazil, one of the world's largest functioning democracies where the vast majority of the people have little more than the vote.

The ballot box has not noticeably improved their lives. The second was to Oman, ruled by a benign sultan who did not tolerate political opposition but made sure every one of his subjects had access to decent housing, health and education.

The two countries are not an exact comparison. Oman has a tiny population but huge oil wealth, Brazil millions of people and massive resources.

Yet it raised the question of what price the vote? Ask a Brazilian in the favelas if they'd prefer decent sewers to polling booths, and I'm not sure they would choose the latter quite as readily as we assume.

- Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster. He chaired the trustees of the national disability charity Aspire and now sits on various trustee boards.

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